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South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Review by Bill Hirschman

March 6, 2008

Listen up. You only have until Sunday afternoon to catch the revival of The Soul of Gershwin, arguably the best theatrical revue to play South Florida in years, at Parker Playhouse.

Subtitled The Musical Journey of an American Klezmer, this is not a Gershwin concert, although there are impeccably rendered Gershwin tunes. It's not a stuffy resurrection of klezmer tunes, although you'll hear that style played here with rollicking drive and raucous zest.

The show is an aurally illustrated examination of how a generation of Jewish-American composers were influenced by the cross-pollinating sounds of klezmer, liturgical music, blues, gospel and a half-dozen other sources. It is the ultimate expression of immigrant assimilation, something greater than the sum of its parts.

Don't fear an academic dissertation. The genial cigar-chomping spirit of George Gershwin (Michael Paul Levin) strolls us through a glorious parade performed by superb vocalists and a stunning band led by the show's creator, Joe Vass. Vass brilliantly demonstrates his thesis by juxtaposition. Robert Marinoff serenades the audience with the bluesy Summertime from Porgy and Bess - in Yiddish. And they're a perfect fit.

The Yiddish theater song of Noah crooning to the animals, Noach's Teive, gives way to Gershwin's classic expression of sophisticated joy, 'S Wonderful.

You don't have to be a musicologist to hear how a cantor's prayer soaring from a synagogue and the hymn issuing from a Harlem church share open-hearted emotion and the tendency to jam as many notes as possible into the phrasing of a single word. The soloists' rich, fluid voices are matched by a band that is as nimble and expressive as any you've heard lately even as they're playing cantorial arias to jazz scat.

Listening to chanteuse Prudence Johnson caress Someone to Watch Over Me is like floating down a river. Bruce A. Henry is just as memorable on Embraceable You.

Each band member is a virtuoso: Chris Bates' swinging bass, Jay Epstein's ecstatic drums, Brian Grivna's wailing woodwinds, Dave Jensen's skipping trumpets runs, Vass' evocative piano and, first among equals, the amazing violin of Carolyn Boulay. Their rendition of the traditional Heyser Bulgar is a rousing, pulse-pounding display of joyful musical pyrotechnics.

When everyone comes together for I Got Rhythm (with the Flintstones theme thrown in), it's just pure hallelujah. Veteran actor Jack Klugman gives a brief welcome at each performance.